JAN RIVERS AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2380

Council Meeting: MAY 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Columnists
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Jan Rivers complains that an article published on February 14, 2014 on the Stuff website was unfair and unbalanced and therefore in breach of Principle 1 of the Press Council principles. Principle 1 requires fairness, accuracy and balance.
The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background
On February 14, 2014 Stuff published an opinion piece by Pattrick Smellie about the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP). The article was headed “Ten things the TPP critics do not want you to grasp” and consisted of comment on ten arguments that the author attributed to opponents of TPP.
Shortly after the publication of Pattrick Smellie’s article, Professor Jane Kelsey wrote an article in response to his views. This was also published on Stuff and the two articles were connected by hyperlink. The article appears to have been published in The Dominion Post and later in the Stuff business section, though the date of publication is not clear. The editor of Stuff advises that when he became aware of the two articles he arranged for links between the two articles.
Both Ms Rivers and Glen Scanlon, editor of Stuff, appeared before the Press Council to make submissions in person.

The Complaint
Ms Rivers complains that the article is unfair and unbalanced. She also appears to complain that it is factually inaccurate as in her complaint letter she refers to mistakes of fact that have not been corrected.
She comments on five of the ten points, countering them by putting forward evidence that had not been mentioned in Mr Smellie’s article.
In addressing the Press Council, Ms Rivers remarked that Mr Smellie presents himself as a journalist and accordingly she would expect a more balanced view from him.

The Stuff Response
The editor of Stuff apologised for a delay in responding to the complaint. He submitted that the piece was clearly opinion, and marked as such, and that there was no obligation on the author to agree with others or to use the same arguments. He acknowledged Professor Kelsey’s article and said that he had made sure her piece was directly linked to Mr Smellie’s piece.
He expressed the view that this was a long-running debate with many different opinions, and that it was healthy for people to make their arguments and for the public to consider these.

Discussion
It is clear that the article in question is an opinion piece and that accordingly the rules about fairness and balance are rather different from those applying to other types of article. Opinions by their very nature may be arguable. They may be robustly expressed and even on occasion offensive or unacceptable to some readers without breaching the standards to be expected of a reputable media outlet.

In an opinion piece, as opposed to the reporting of a news item, the author is not obliged to present all facts or arguments that may be relevant to the topic under discussion, and may select facts that support the opinion that is being expressed. However those facts must be accurate.

On analysis of Ms Rivers’ complaint, it becomes clear that she does not so much question the accuracy of the facts presented in the article but that she believes there are other facts that cast doubt on the validity of Mr Smellie’s opinions. This may be so, but it does not mean that Mr Smellie’s facts are inaccurate. Nor does Mr Smellie’s profession as a journalist mean that he should be restricted in the expression of his opinions.

The Press Council principles provide that in articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view, but that exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion. It is likely that the controversy over the TPP falls into this category. While the provision is not always relevant to opinion pieces, it seems that Stuff has observed the spirit of the principle by publishing Professor Kelsey’s article and linking it to Mr Smellie’s article.

Decision
The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff and Stephen Stewart.
Mark Stevens and Vernon Small withdrew and took no part in the discussion of this complaint.